“Hunt’s Force” in the fight against the German offensive in March 1918

Imperial War Museum photograph Q10806, with thanks. A store building set on fire. Note the signs of hurried departure and soldiers searching among the litter of an abandoned Expeditionary Force canteen, Péronne, 23 March 1918. Hunt's Force was defending the town as this photograph was being taken.

Background

A Corps Reinforcement Camp was in effect a holding unit, under command of a Corps headquarters. It received men from the Infantry Base Depots (whether newly arrived in the theatre of returning to service after a break for medical treatment or similar reasons) and details from units within the structure. Its job was to continue their training until they were required to be sent to the units of the corps as reinforcements. The Camp was organised into “Divisional Wings”, each for men who would be or were associated with one of the Divisions under command of the Corps. It was not a unit normally expected to fight, but like many rear area units it was dragged in to the defence against the German Operation “Michael” offensive which began on 21 March 1918.

VII Corps Reinforcement Training Camp

This camp was located at Haut Allaines. It was commanded by Captain (Acting Lieutenant-Colonel) John Patrick Hunt DSO DCM of the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

It had four Divisional Wings:

  • 9th (Scottish) Divisional Wing under Captain James Alexander Lindsay Turner (King’s Own Scottish Borderers)
  • 16th (Irish) Divisional Wing under Major Thomas James Carron-Roberts (Royal Irish Fusiliers)
  • 21st Divisional Wing under Major Henry Montague Cave Orr (Lincolnshire Regiment)
  • 39th Divisional Wing under Major John Cruikshank (Royal Highlanders)

A present day map showing the locations mentioned in this article. Note that Haute Allaines appears just as Allaines.

21 March 1918

During the heavy artillery bombardment that preceded the German infantry attack, the light railway from Haute Allaines was destroyed, leaving it impossible to quickly send reinforcements forward from the camp. The bombardment continued throughout the day.

At 9.15m orders were received to evacuate the camp and for all present to march 15km to Maricourt. The orders were passed on to the Wings to begin the move at 11.15pm, with 39th Divisional Wing leading the way. Five lorries were provided for moving stores. The column began to move at 11.30pm, going via Moislains, Rancourt, Combles and Hardicourt. This was a demanding night march: many of the men were of low medical grade (“PB”: Permanent Base) and about 200 were newly arrived and recently trained young men.

The camp’s Adjutant, Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Herbert White (Royal Dublin Fusiliers), stayed to oversee the departure. Owing to lack of transport he was forced to set fire to stores that could not be moved.

22 March 1918

The column began to reach the huts at Maricourt at 8.30am.

3pm Hunt received orders to form his men into a fighting unit and for it to move to Péronne. He was instructed to report to VII Corps headquarters. He formed the following:

  • “A” Company formed by 16th (Irish) Divisional Wing
  • “B” Company formed by 21st Divisional Wing
  • “C” Company formed by 39th Divisional Wing (under Captain Palmer)
  • “D” Company formed by 9th (Scottish) Divisional Wing (under Lieutenant Harold Laurence Sumner, South African Infantry)
  • Details under Major J Cruickshank.

At 5.30pm Maricourt began to be shelled (from a distance of 12 miles). The battalion marched out, led by Hunt’s 2-i-c Major William Francis Jeffries. On reaching Cléry-sur-Somme it was halted by a message from Corps and ordered to bivouac before stating for Péronne again at 4am next day.

Hunt was given command of all forces in the vicinity of Péronne.

23 March 1918

Hunt met with Jeffries and the company commanders and instructed them to take up an outpost position between Haute Allaines and Doingt. But then urgent orders came from Corps: Péronne was to be abandoned and the force must move back to Maricourt. Hunt remained to supervise the evacuation of the town, which included the destruction of many stores and the persuasion of civilians to leave. The town’s mayor* was reluctant to do so before he had received orders direct from Paris.

*This was either M. Paul Caron or M. Charles Boulanger (I have been unable to find the exact date in 1918 in which Boulanger succeeded Caron).

Before leaving Péronne, Major Orr was given command of an improvised unit of details (men returning from leave, stragglers, cooks, etc) and eventually this unit joined the remainder at Maricourt.

The withdrawal was slowed by the enormous amount of traffic jamming the roads. The force halted for an hour for dinner at Cléry-sur-Somme. The force’s war diary notes that had enemy aircraft been active, enormous damage could have been done. As the force and many others streamed into Maricourt, Hunt re-organised them and had to find officers and NCOs to carry it out. Where possible men would be under command of an officer of their own regiment but this was not always possible. In one unit, a company consisting of Royal Engineers was formed. This was achieved by 7pm:

  • Number 1 Battalion: details of 39th Divisional Wing under Major Gregory (Cheshire Regiment)
  • Number 2 Battalion: from 24th Entrenching Battalion under Captain Mitchell
  • Number 3 Battalion: VII Corps Reinforcement Training Camp Battalion under Major Carron-Roberts
  • Number 4 Battalion: VII Corps Reinforcement Training Camp Battalion (of partially trained men) under Major Cruikshank
  • Number 5 Battalion: from details of VII Corps School and the company of Royal Engineers
  • Number 6 Battalion: from VII Corps Details under Major Orr.

Information was received that German cavalry and infantry were threatening to cut the British line of communications. Hunt’s force was ordered to deploy to hold a line from the north west of Maricourt and south to Suzanne. Numbers 1, 3 and 4 Battalions moved to take up this line, with the three others being held in reserve.

Two more battalions were also later formed:

  • Number 7 Battalion: from 17th Entrenching Battalion under Captain Gear
  • Number 8 Battalion: various men returning from leave and courses. Under Lieutenant Neville (South African Infantry), they were at first only used as carrying parties.

During the night there was no sign of any enemy approaching the line, but bombs fell on the camp and in Maricourt, resulting in Captain Brown of the 21st Divisional Wing being injured and three other ranks being wounded.

The war diary of Fifth Army HQ staff gives grid map reference details regarding the position of the line that the force took up. It is shown here in red.

24 March 1918

The day was spent digging in and bringing up as much ammunition as possible. Medical supplies including field dressings proved to be in short supply. The force had no Lewis machine guns of its own but managed to find 22 from some abandoned tanks in the vicinity.

At 9.15pm, a Sergeant from 4 Battalion reported that the enemy had attacked one of his posts in large numbers and had “scuppered” a post near to his front. Jeffries went to see for himself, finding that Sergeant Woodhams (KRRC) and the men of his post were missing. The Highland Light Infantry, positioned on the left of the battalion, were being pushed back and it was necessary to adjust the line in order to maintain contact with them.

From the British Official History. The position of Hunt’s Force is shown as a chain of dots, signifying that it was in a reserve position. To the east, the solid lines mark the front as it was on 24 March 1918. By day’s end, the front had been withdrawn to the black dashed line and Hunt’s Force was now engaged.

25 March 1918

At 10am, Hunt’s HQ moved to a house in Maricourt and his command then also incorporated 105th and 106th Infantry Brigades of 35th Division. Orders were given to the force to hold its position for two days, at which point it would be relieved by French units.

About 11am, German infantry attacked but were beaten off by machine gun and rifle fire. The German artillery fired much poison gas and infantry tactics were reported as poor, with the advance coming on in massed ranks.

Number 3 Battalion took some 50 Germans prisoner. At about 12.30pm its commanding officer Major Carron-Roberts became a casualty of poison gas. He was evacuated. His adjutant, Lieutenant Frank Aubrey Newsam (Royal Irish Regiment) took over and rallied his men. He was soon wounded. Captain Cyril Bernard Donovan MC (2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers) then stepped forward to take command of the battalion: he went into the front line and played his part in firing at the enemy. Donovan and his servant were killed by the same German bullet. An officer of the Royal Garrison Artillery, Captain William Henderson RobertsonMC, succeeded him to become the battalion’s fourth commanding officer within a few hours.

Major John Cruikshank, commanding Number 4 Battalion and his adjutant were both wounded. Commanded devolved onto Captain Robert Leslie Illingworth MC (16th Sherwood Foresters). He continued to lead the battalion despite having no adjutant and very few other officers available.

Major Henry Montague Cave Orr, commanding Number 6 Battalion despite being medically unfit, was eventually seriously wounded in the leg by a shell.

This map from the Official History shows the situation at dawn on 25 March, but only illustrates the southernmost part of Hunt’s Force.

At about 2.30pm, heavy German shellfire covered another infantry attack – and this time it made progress against the left (that is, northernmost) part of the line held by Hunt’s Force. The situation looked critical. Hunt, together with Brigadier-General Maradin commanding 105th Infantry Brigade, collected up all their staffs, details and stragglers they could find and proceeded to reinforce the threatened front. Shellfire continued all afternoon and at 7pm the transport in Maricourt was obliged to be evacuated.

About 9.30pm, orders were received that the whole line was to be abandoned and the force withdrawn towards Bray-sur-Somme. All troops were clear of Maricourt by 11pm. 106th Infantry Brigade formed the rear guard, and the last gun was withdrawn at 2.15am on 26 March. With no transport available, much material in stores and dumps at Maricourt, including items that had been saved from the camp at Haute Allaines, had to be burned to ensure they did not fall into enemy hands. Tragically it also meant that the day’s dead had to be left where they were, as there had been opportunity to bury very few. Virtually no stretchers could now be had: other than those able to walk, the wounded men in most cases had to be left, and soon fell into enemy hands.

26 March 1918

The remnant of the force gathered in a field north west of Bray-sur-Somme, where (excluding the two brigades of 35th Division and the two Entrenching Battalions) it was reorganised into four battalions, one for each Divisional Wing.

At about 11am orders came for the battalions to deploy ready to mount a counter-attack. Directly observed by enemy balloons and with no shred of cover available, the force came under heavy counter-preparation shellfire. Casualties began to mount, yet Hunt continued to go around his men and encourage them. Their discipline was reported to be excellent, in spite of the youth and inexperience of many of the. Lieutenant Herald (Royal Engineers) took command of a platoon of recruits who had lost their officers and NCOs and were becoming demoralised. Considering the extent of the bombardment and the exposed position, in all the casualties were mercifully light. Around noon the order came to withdrawal, and the force gradually filtered back through Morlancourt to reach Buire-sur-Ancre.

27 March 1918

The force now came under heavy artillery bombardment once more. Force HQ sustained casualties and moved out into open fields. A few parties began to flee towards Corbie but were rounded up and sent back their units. Later in the day, utterly exhausted after five days of action, tension, loss and little food or drink, the force was relieved. During the afternoon, VII Corps commander Leiutenant-General Congreve sent a note of congratulations.

Casualties

Roll call was taken on 28 March 1918, by which date the force had withdrawn to Moislains-au-Bois.

It is, sadly, very difficult to determine the casualties. The service records of officers and other ranks very often do not mention their attachment to a Corps Reinforcement Camp and certainly not to the ad-hoc battalions formed during such an action. Even the casualty lists in VII Corps headquarters war diaries, which names the officers, does not identify them as being with the force. In all, 75 officers had become casualties (9 killed, 33 wounded and 33 missing. Of the other ranks, 576 had become casualties of whom 324 were only known as missing at roll call.

The typed summary in the diary of VII Corps’s adjutant gives the force as losing 4 officers and 35 men killed; 5 and 189 wounded; and 1 and 316 missing. In addition to these were the losses of 17th and 24th Entrenching Battalions, given as 17 men killed; 35 wounded; and 2 officers and 39 men missing.

Those named below are the ones I have found so far:

Killed in action

Captain Cyril Bernard Donovan MC (2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who took command of Number 3 Battalion on 25 March and was killed shortly afterwards). Aged 25 he was the son of Fredric and Anastatia Donovan of High Street, Hertford. He has no known grave.

I thank Hertford Town Council for the use of this image of Cyril Donovan.

Lieutenant John Donaldson MC (Manchester Regiment, attached to 24th Entrenching Battalion). He has no known grave.

Wounded

  • Major Thomas James Carron-Roberts (Royal Irish Fusiliers) (gas poisoning)
  • Major John Cruikshank
  • Lieutenant Frank Aubrey Newsam
  • Major Henry Montague Cave Orr
  • Second Lieutenant H. Evans (2/5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, attached to 24th Entrenching Battalion)
  • Lieutenant John Mitchell Fowlie (2/6th Gloucestershire Regiment, attached to 24th Entrenching Battalion)
  • Second Lieutenant C H Williamson (2/5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment, attached to 24th Entrenching Battalion)

Awards

Hunt was awarded the Bar to the Distinguished Service Order that he had earned in 1916:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He formed at short notice an improvised force, comprised of troops from several different units, and handled it with great skill. He contributed largely towards the success of a counter-attack, when he rallied his men at a very critical period and drove the enemy back out of a village. Again, later, by his fearless example, he restored the situation, when the enemy were on the point of breaking through the line.

I thank National Museum of Ireland for the use of this photograph of John Patrick Hunt.

Captain (Acting Major) William Francis Jeffries was also awarded the DSO:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Although suffering from the effects of gas poisoning at a time when a portion of the line was penetrated, he mustered all scattered troops, and with skilful leadership led them forward and restored the line. His example of courage and contempt of danger had the most inspiring influence on the men.

Major Frederick Charles Gregory (Cheshire Regiment) was also awarded the DSO:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. By the skilful handling of the battalion under his command he kept the line intact throughout the whole action, and successfully supported the line on his left. On two occasions he organized counter attacks and drove off the enemy with severe loss. Throughout the action he displayed leadership of a high order

Captain Robert Leslie Illingworth MC was also awarded the DSO:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He took over command of a partly-trained composite battalion from a wounded officer. With great skill he maintained the line, organized local counter-attacks, and drove the enemy back. It was in great measure due to his good leadership and courage that the battalion, which was in the heat of the fight, rendered such a good account of itself, both then and again on a subsequent occasion.

Second Lieutenant Charles Francis Harry (1/21st London Regiment) was awarded the Military Cross:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty when a party of 30-40 of the enemy having approached our trenches he left them and engaged them with 10 men, driving them off. He did this again later, and drove the enemy off, after engaging them for three hours. Throughout the whole day he showed marked initiative and gallantry.

Lieutenant John Arthur Heald was also awarded the Military Cross:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He formed ammunition and ration dumps at several points behind the outpost line under a heavy bombardment. His untiring energy and courage in collecting carrying parties at great risk, and in maintaining supplies throughout the day, were of a very high standard. Later, he rallied a company with great promptitude, when the commander had been killed, and handled it successfully in a rearguard action.

Lieutenant Frank Aubrey Newsam was also awarded the Military Cross:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This officer went forward collecting all stragglers and reorganising the line when one of the companies commenced to retire. By his prompt action he restored the situation.

Captain William Henderson Robertson MC was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in handling a company of infantry with much skill and rendering every possible support to the outpost line. When the line had been penetrated by an enemy attack supported by artillery, he organised and led forward some 400 stragglers, re-established the line, and maintained it. His prompt action and cool leadership in the emergency were beyond praise.

Lieutenant Harold Laurence Sumner was also awarded the Military Cross:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Whilst in command of a composite battalion he showed fine leadership. About 11 a.m. his company line was driven in by a strong enemy attack. He immediately reorganised the men himself, leading a counterattack which was successful. He inflicted heavy losses, blocked a gap in the line, and restored the position.

Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Herbert White was also awarded the Military Cross:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During a heavy attack by the enemy he organised a company of stragglers and led them in a counter-attack, successfully driving the enemy back over the original line. It was in great measure due to his coolness and able leadership that the counterattack was successful.

One Distinguished Conduct medal and 15 Military Medals were awarded to men of the other ranks, but at present few of these have  proved to be identifiable.

MM:

Private 3659 (Officers Servant) Joseph Greenfield (Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers)

Aftermath

John Patrick Hunt – known as Jack Hunt – was knighted in the King’s Birthday Honours of 1919. He had already retired from army service in 1913 (the photograph above is from his time in the ranks during that period of his service) and was a veteran of the Second Boer War, but rejoined in 1914. He joined the army of the Irish Free State in 1922.

William Francis Jeffries CBE DSO was involved with the Combined Intelligence Service in Ireland during the war of independence and went on to be commandant of the Intelligence Corps in WW2. He died in 1965.

Frank Aubrey Newsam MC went on to a long career with the Home Office, for which he was knighted. He died in 1964. Link

Sources

Detailed report with the war diary of Fifth Army General Staff. National Archives WO95/521
Campaign medal rolls at Ancestry (for confirmation of names and numbers)
Award announcements in the “London Gazette”
‘Unofficial Emissaries’: British Army Boxers in the Irish Free State, 1926 by David Fitzpatrick (Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 30, No. 118 (Nov., 1996))

Links

The First Battles of the Somme, 1918

VII Corps

Entrenching Battalions

35th Division

Named individuals

HQ VII Corps Reinforcement Training Camp

Assistant Commandant and Chief Instructor: Captain (Acting Major) William Francis Jeffries (3rd Royal Dublin Fusiliers)
Adjutant: Lieutenant (Acting Captain) Herbert White (9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers)
Musketry Officer: Lieutenant J. Young (2/8th Royal Scots)
Gas Officer: Lieutenant John Arthur Heald (Royal Engineers)
Medical Officer: Lieutenant Morales (United States Reserve)
Regimental Sergeant Major 3939 David Steele (Northumberland Fusiliers; veteran of Sudan and the Boer War)
Acting Quartermaster-Sergeant 9010 John Haynes (Royal Irish Regiment)
Acting Company Sergeant-Major (Wiring Instructor) G/7876 Douglas Judd DCM (Middlesex Regiment)
Acting Company Sergeant-Major 1561 Alfred Riley (Army Gymnastic Staff) (wounded)
Acting Sergeant 16906 B. Banks (Essex Regiment)
Sergeant (Orderly Room) 15244 William G. Bastin MM (Royal Dublin Fusiliers)
Sergeant (Gas Instructor) 290954 William Dawson (5th Scottish Rifles)
Acting Sergeant S/4241 Thomas Keddle (Rifle Brigade)
Sergeant (Transport) 47954 William Edward Moseley (Royal Field Artillery)
Corporal (Signalling Instructor) 355314 Alfred Binns (10th King’s (Liverpool Regiment))
Acting Corporal (Orderly Room) 36235 James Murdock (Leicestershire Regiment) (wounded)
Acting Corporal (Officers Mess) 15500 Harry Rogers (Hampshire Regiment)
Lance-Corporal (Signalling Instructor) 2910 Fenton Hollingsworth (Rifle Brigade)
Lance-Corporal (Gas Instructor) 8769 R. W. Pfister (4th South African Infantry)
Lance-Corporal (Musketry Instructor) 23894 Harold M. Robinson (14th Royal Welsh Fusiliers)
Private 13899 (Officers Servant) John Brown (Royal Dublin Fusiliers) (wounded)
Private 3659 (Officers Servant) Joseph Greenfield (Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers)
Private R/13153 (Officers Servant) Joseph Ludeman (King’s Royal Rifle Corps)